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The adaptation of sanjo to contemporary culture

Challenges and transformations of sanjo in modern times, focusing on performance, education, and cultural preservation.

1) The crisis of the sanjo transmission in a turning point for modernization

At the turn of the 20th century, Korea underwent tumultuous social changes as it moved from a strictly agricultural society to an industrial society. With such radical social changes, traditional musicians had a hard time to find appropriate venues in which to perform. Due to a collapse of traditional political and class systems, the traditional entertainers and musicians lost their patrons and supporters. The introduction of western culture into modern Korea also brought traditional culture to decline. Eventually, the life of traditional musicians became bleak, and the state of traditional performing arts was in decline. With rapid modernization, new kinds of entertainment emerged for the masses. Many modern theaters were built, and they became the venues for musicians to perform. Professional musicians organized performance troupes for the stage performances. The concert-goers were mainly the urban citizens who preferred to listen to short episodes of pansori rather than the complete epic. In a similar vein, the sanjo performers began to perform shortened versions on stage.

2) Sanjo performance on stage

After the liberation from Japanese Occupation in 1945, the Korean government tried to restore the vanishing traditional culture. National theaters for the performing arts, such as the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts (NCKTPA) and the National Theater, were established in the 1950s. Consequently, Korean musicians had opportunities to perform on stages. Pansori singers began to sing the complete story of epic tales. For example, Pak Dong-jin (1910-2003) performed the entire ouevre of five pansori epics on stage sponsored by the NCKTPA in the late 1960s. Pak’s performances were greatly hailed by the audience, and this gave other singers the inspiration and motivation to perform entire story of pansori epics. Sanjo players have also attempted the full-length performance from slow jinyangjo to fast jajinmori on stages.

3) Adoption of sanjo in colleges and the change of learning methods

The educational system teaching sanjo changed as a whole when Seoul National University established a music department devoted to traditional music in 1959. Sanjo was the pre-requisite for instrument major students to learn during their college years. The music teachers in colleges adopted a western pedagogical lesson system in the education of sanjo. The traditional method of learning sanjo was based on apprenticeship and oral transmission. Young novices learned sanjo little by little following his/her teacher’s instruction, through memorization. By contrast, college music students learn sanjo on a weekly basis by following a music score transcribed into western staff notation (see Chapter Ⅳ of this volume). The contemporary learning process facilitated a faster period of mastery, but ultimately resulted in a weakening of improvisatory musical abilities.

4) Sanjo as the Intangible Cultural Heritage

The Korean government passed legislation in order to protect traditional culture during the 1960s. Many performing art genres, including sanjo, were designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage from the early 1960s. Many famous musicians were recognized as so-called “Human Treasures” for their skills, and young students gathered to learn sanjo from them. However the system has posed a negative effect in the transmission of sanjo. Since the “Human Treasures” are expected to preserve the “authentic” form of music, they are often deterred from improvising upon the music even on stage.

sourse: Bo-hyung Lee, “ChapterⅠ. Social History of Sanjo”, 『KOREAN MUSICOLOGY SERIES, 3 ‘Sanjo’』10~11p, National Gugak Center, 2009.
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